Full of opinion,
Schoolwork absolutely sucks,
Too bad, get it done.
Full of opinion,
Full of opinion,
Schoolwork absolutely sucks,
Too bad, get it done.
“The elephants are dancing on the graves of squeeling mice.” Cream, Anyone for Tennis
We longed for the day
When graduation would be there,
High school would be over, and
College would set us on our adult ways.
We were told the past four years
Were the perfect preparation for the next four or five.
We never bought that message
Seeing the homework as unnecessary,
Wondering why we couldn’t leave for lunch, and
Moaning about all the dumb stuff we couldn’t understand.
Secretly we vowed to never be like that.
Then we got our jobs,
Falling into the trap of efficiency and control
Set by the changing tides of evaluation and continuous improvement.
We started giving homework,
The same kind of assignments that we dreaded.
We continued reading the books that we did,
As if they are the only ones that have anything important to say.
They were classics ordained by people from another time,
An era we railed against as students.
Then, we became the robots we vowed to never be.
Now we pass the blame onto the kids.
I wonder how I became the brick and mortar I so dislike.
Those with authority tell me to make a change.
In the same breath, they say they can’t make change at their level,
So what am I to do?
I’ve latched onto every initiative they have thrown out there,
Nearly a quarter century of graphic organizers, objectives, and technology.
It’s all just a filter, as the information to be delivered
Rarely ever changes,
At least in principle for the foreseeable future.
Many years ago
I made a move to teach
At a high school.
After elementary school and middle school,
I figured I had seen just about everything.
Besides the normal school stuff,
I got to learn a whole new faculty.
One man was a longtime teacher
Who was nearing retirement.
I only knew him in passing, but he was always around.
He ran the hallways during his planning.
His choppy steps were quiet
And he always listened to something
Loud enough on his headphones
To bypass his downgraded hearing ability.
After he retired,
He stuck around.
Using his guile and experience
From teaching the hardest of students
To manage the toughest of all teaching jobs, the substitute.
And he ran.
After a quick Clark Kent change,
He was out of his bow tie
Making his way around the building
With a pace perfect
For memorizing his lines in the script he carried.
I never knew he was an actor,
But he was great,
Never letting on that he had cancer,
Never suggesting that he could not beat it.
His anger seemed manageable as he reasoned with his struggle.
Yet, he remained upbeat
Running as much as possible,
Reading during quiet moments between classes,
Standing through the rigors of standardized testing,
Acting as if he was on the mend.
We last spoke about two weeks ago.
He did some quiet judging of education,
How we are missing the importance of what we are
By focusing so much time on testing
For he had been a man of relationships, no matter how difficult the student.
Word came today that Kirk passed away.
Cancer took a good man away from us all too soon.
He lived with a dignity and honesty
Few will ever approach.
So long, Mr. Fetters…
I don’t know what is the most important lesson a coach can share, but I know Coach Farrior said something that inspired me off the basketball court. I wrote an essay in his History class. I have no idea what it was about, but he took me aside and talked up my writing. I may or may not be any good at getting my thoughts on this electronic paper, but I know that the encouragement Coach Farrior gave me helped inspire me to write more at a time where I could have just as easily not written. Thanks, Coach Farrior.
The radar is a difficult place to be on. When a boss sets the authoritative sights on a pleb, there is not much that can be done to escape the inevitable destruction. Jack walked towards The Commanders office with a sinking feeling that he had done something wrong. In all of his years, Jack had never been summoned to the principal’s office for anything good. In fact, in all of his years of being in school he remembered nothing but negativity associated with any principal’s office. He trudged through the maze of the open concept school thinking what he might like for his last supper.
“Maybe I’ll have a cocktail or smoothie made from arugula,” he thought. “I hope they use a flat paddle and not a round piece of bamboo for my flogging.” Negative thoughts were swirling as he stepped into the office suite.
Sitting at her desk was the matronly secretary to the principal, Mrs. Bell. She had been at her post through the tenure’s of four principals and there was a ritual to gaining access to the boss. She saw the door to her superior’s office as a gate to be protected at all costs and each visitor was corralled in a row of vintage office chairs that deigned to mimic mid-century modern furniture. She ran her homestead with absolute authority and any violation of the routine was cause for a time out and restriction of prompt access to the real boss.
“Hello, Mrs. Bell,” said Jack.
She continued checking boxes on some form and never looked up. Jack noticed sprouts of gray sneaking into her mysteriously black hair. Just as he was about to forgo appropriate convention and ask this very old women if her hair was “starting” to gray, Mrs. Bell pointed to the empty chairs and said, “He’ll be with you in a moment.”
After about ten minutes the door clicked and opened. The Commander had installed an electronic door opener so he could let people in without greeting them at the door. The Commander was a master at schmoozing his bosses and parents, but he was even better at keeping a distance between those he should have been serving, the teachers and students. Jack expected The Commander to be sitting behind his average desk with the props of man who had risen to the mean of his profession hanging on the wall behind him. Instead, he was greeted by The Commandress.
“Jack, welcome. We were just talking about you,” she said with all of the transparency of a woman running for President of the United States.
“Well, I hope some of it was good. Should I have representation with me?”
The Commander and Commandress looked at each other and laughed like they were actors in a sit-com.
“Of course not, we would have advised you as to the need for such had we thought it necessary,” said The Commander.
“No, Jack,” started The Commandress, “We were impressed by your message to the students. You understand exactly what we are hoping to achieve with PIOUS and we have a proposition for you.”
The years of battle for Jack had taught him to be wary of good things coming from above. He was more surprised to be offered something that sounded positive by these two than he would have been if either of them had come out as a transvestite. As a student of The Godfather, Jack knew that favors and proposals come with traps and he knew that if he did not listen to their offer he would be on the wrong radar. Jack was ready to be off that screen.
“Let’s hear it.”
“First, Jack, we were talking and both noticed that you never use names with us. Perhaps the time has come to remove the formalities from our relationship. I would be happy if you called me by my first name, Betty.”
“Boop,” thought Jack. “Alright, Betty it is.”
The Commander followed her lead with the drool coming from his mouth like a dog waiting for a treat. He added to the conversation, “We have had an unfortunate history, but I have always respected your abilities as a teacher…”
“Bull,” thought Jack.
“…I’d like it if we could start over, so please feel free to call me by my first name as well.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I know it,” said Jack as he ran through the Rolodex of nicknames the faculty had for The Commander.
“It’s Allen.” The Commander looked over to Betty and said, “What a great sense of humor he has.” She gave him a courtesy laugh.
Betty said, “Jack, we would like you to come to my house out on the Chickahominy River this weekend. The administration and board are having a retreat to discuss major changes to the district’s five-year plan. We think that you would have a great deal to offer the discussion. Will you come?”
Bam! Betty sprung a trap that left Jack no place in the district to hide. He could go rogue and say, “No,” but that would leave him in a pool of muck no matter where the rest of his career would take him.
“I’d be honored,” he said.
Betty gave him the address and the each exchanged pleasant good-byes. As Jack left the office thoughts of doom were churning in his head. He felt like a beetle just before the “Tims” come down a smashing. He went up the ramp and back to the PE office where the other teachers were eating lunch.
“What’s wrong with you? You look like you got punched in the solar plexus,” said Oliver.
“I just got a butt flossing with alpaca fibers,” said Jack.
“What do you mean?” asked Oliver.
“It’s too much for me to explain right now. I’m not sure what is happening, but I’ve been invited into the sanctum. I’ll be a river rat this weekend.”
“Oh, no. That’s not good for you my friend.”
The first days of school have a lyrical quality. The students arrive with varying degrees of energy. There are those who are serious about school and have learned to play the game. There are others who have given up on the game and only come because they are compelled to attend. Still, there are others who think they are the game and do everything they can to make a mockery of what is happening. The first days are on homage to the frenetic pace with which learning must take place and a tribute to the every style of spoken word from socially conscious rap stylings to the laid back ballads of a country crooner.
Jack found that the best way to deal with the first few days was in embracing the energy and letting it take him wherever it went. He had learned that having an unassuming manner allowed the kids to find their place in his classes and gain the confidence they needed to fit into high school. All the while, though, he was a spy who was hacking their social status code and preparing to take them to places they probably did not want to go. Jack would go about his random storytelling creating the impression that his was a class that had little to do with actual learning. Just when the students would start to have a look of “where is this guy going,” Jack would drop a serious question on them that would require the students to relate the non-sense story to a concept that they had talked about in a lecture. The impact was predictable. The students would make faces and say that there was no connection, then Jack would lead them through a series of “What about” questions that guided students towards the realization that the story had a purpose.
The first few days of storytelling and questioning were often slow and combative. The students, who were not in school shape yet, had a hard time making connections to the stories. They would complain that the class did not matter or that they weren’t learning anything. Then, like every good song or poem, there would be a moment of insight. They would understand that the stories did relate to something. They would start to think about what they were hearing beyond the entertainment value and start looking for the messages of the stories. Before the end of the first marking period they would start asking for stories instead of PowerPoint lectures and canned educational instructional materials.
The beginning of the school year was no time for jamming the students with the prison like expectations of law and order learning. Jack had learned his lesson there. He had given up on the “my way” method of teaching and taken his classroom control to a different level of coercion. Instead of demanding that the students be the way he wanted, he taught them how the skills they were learning in class would help them be successful in all areas of their lives. He integrated the course expectations with course content so that the students could see the relevancy of his madness. He praised their successes and retaught whatever was necessary to help them understand that his class was about learning how to be successful and all the Health stuff was just a tool for their achieving success. There was no rush for all of this to happen because as Jack saw the calendar year, there was ample time for this methodical kind of learning.
Unfortunately, this year, Jack would not be afforded the freedom to teach as he had found was best for him. He was being given a program, PIOUS, that was marketed as a non-scripted design framework to improve student success. Fortunately, Jack was done resisting and trying to figure out what educational researchers and school power brokers were trying to do. He had become like the students who just come to school and get through it. His goal was to stay as true to himself as he could without ignoring the wants of the people who were developing the vision for the school district. The Commander was one of those people. His role as the principal seemed to be survival. He did that well, submissive to his superiors and aggressively dishonest to his subordinates. Perhaps the one thing that truly allowed him to stand out was his Trump-styled hair.
The Commander only answered to The Commandress. She was a longtime school administrator with a short time of teaching experience. Her background was in budgets, mostly spending the budget on canned programs with little relevancy to what students needed to learn. One year she spent thousands on math manipulatives so students could learn to do math in egg cartons. Another year she spent money on technology that did not have the ability to upgrade. There were few who questioned her judgement, though. She ruled with an iron will that was exercised through her principals and bevy of central office administrators. This year they were pushing PIOUS as the latest and greatest thing to hit education since real estate taxes.
The PIOUS model was a joke to many of the teachers at Wilnetsburg High School. They saw the program as dumbing down, an easing of standards, and a script that took away their professional judgment in the classroom. Jack listened to The Commander’s raggedy speech about demographics and achievement with the same survival instinct he could tell was being used to deliver the speech. He submitted to the will of The Commandress and a strange thing happened to Jack. He became happy and on the first days of school he felt no frustration as he spoke about the practical reasons for the students learning what they were. After all, PIOUS was no different than what he had been doing for nearly a quarter of a century. District policy was finally going to let Jack be Jack.
As usual, the students wrestled with the stories. They also complained that most of their teachers were practically teaching the same way and that school was really boring. Jack thought about how he would respond to his students’ concerns. As he was about to answer, The Commandress and her minion, The Commander, walked in for an informal observation.
“Ella, I’m not sure what the best way to answer your question is,” said Jack. He looked at his two bosses and continued, “Learning is a process. Let’s look at it this way, there are many ways to Richmond. Once you decide to go there, you have to figure out what you think is the best way. Hopefully, you’ll get there safely. The way were are teaching this year is one way to help you get wherever it is you want to go. However, you define success your success, whether it be AP tests, trade school, the military, or entering the workforce. That’s up to you. There are lots of ways to get there and we hope that this way will help you figure out where you are going. Your job is to take what we do and figure out how to make it make sense for you because without your acceptance, this program will not help you at all. But…there are many ways to Richmond, so don’t give up on learning because it takes many forms and is going to be important for wherever you decide to go.”
Jack looked at his bosses who had the expressionless look of administrators who walked into a class expecting to see one teacher and got someone totally different. He smiled with confidence and a puffy chested attitude that was true to himself, student centered, and educationally reasoned. The stone faced duo left and Jack continued with his class. Ten minutes later his computer dinged and let him know that he had a new email. It was from The Commander and all it said was, “Stop by my office after class.”
“Damn, back on the radar,” thought Jack.
There is a fine line between prison and school. Prisoners are given cells. Students are given desks. Prisoners get recreation time. Students have physical education classes and recess. Prisoners do time. Students meet hours. Both are told when to speak, how to act, and when they can go to the bathroom. Guards roam the cell blocks and halls to protect the sanctity of both environments to protect the individual missions. Prisoners are supposed to learn from their mistakes and take advantage of their sentences so that they may be reformed, thereby becoming productive members of society. Theoretically, students are allowed to learn from their mistakes in an effort to prepare them for the rigors of living as adults. Minus the bars and guns, prisoners and students have similar existences, although, the student experience is more lockdown than it was when Jack Allen was a student.
Jack grew up in an historic town just after court orders forced the school system to desegregate. His public school experience had been one that rode the energy of punk, disco, and classic rock music. He took away an appreciation for people and social justice instead of the book based lessons that seemed too limiting for his education. Thirty years after his graduation from high school and nearly ten years after getting a doctorate in education, Jack sat with the rest of his school’s colleagues in folding chairs that erased every bit of suppleness from their hips. They had been herded into the frigid gymnasium so they could taught the school district’s latest initiative, PIOUS, Practical Instruction Offered Uniquely System. The training began three hours earlier with batches of teachers talking about batches of students. Librarians were paired with English teachers, math teachers were grouped with foreign language teachers, and all of them talked about the relationship between poverty and language readiness as predictors of school success.
PIOUS was simple enough. The premise was that students learn better when the complexity of a concept is deconstructed into its essential parts. Jack found the discussion fascinating and sad. He was sad because he had become the old teacher that he swore he would never turn into. He remembered his first year of teaching when the initiative was to build academic vocabulary so that students would understand the key words in the directions of tests. Back in those brown haired days, Jack thought this to be enlightening, but nearly twenty-five years later, and under a full head of gray hair, he only wanted to push a button and go home to walk his dog. The PIOUS model promised to raise student achievement with a multitude of strategies that were gathered from lists of best practices and slickly packaged under an empirically tested model. Jack found that piece of marketing to be fascinating as the studies supporting PIOUS had been conducted by the same hucksters who were putting out the latest, greatest model of instruction and had been conducted under questionable research methods. Evidently, validity, reliability, and random sampling had no real place in educational research.
An administrator from the district office said, “Jack, what do you think about the relationship of the PIOUS framework to student success.”
Jack thought for a moment. On one hand, he knew that the correct answer was that PIOUS was the answer to helping close everything from achievement gaps to the problems of politicians who control public education funding diverting those funds to charter schools that are run by the very politicians setting educational policy. On the other hand, Jack, knew that the most important player in the educational process was being ignored by policy makers and educational opportunists everywhere. PIOUS removed all of the responsibility for learning from the students. The program while opportunistic removed the focus of education from the students to the teachers, thereby making learning an extrinsic proposition.
“If I might quote, Seneca, ‘You may, then, boldly declare that the highest good is singleness of mind: for where agreement and unity are; there must virtues be: it is the vices that are at war with another.’ I think PIOUS could be good if it promotes a singleness of mind.”
The administrator looked confused. “I don’t understand.”
Jack said, “The purpose of PIOUS is to strip the content down to the essential components of a lesson. In theory, this will allow students to develop a single minded view of what they are learning. Hopefully, they will be able to filter out all that noise that exists in childhood and see the importance of what they are learning. In that way, I think PIOUS is a tool to help students learn.”
“I hear a ‘but’ in your voice.”
Jack smiled because he knew that his answer would be received with the same appreciation as a rake being dragged over sunburnt skin, “The excerpt from Seneca suggests that vices compete with each other to interfere with finding virtue. If we are able to remember anything about our schooling, I bet we each had vices in the classroom. Maybe we didn’t like the teacher. Maybe the subject matter was boring or irrelevant to us at the time. Whatever they were, those vices competed with our ability to focus on what we were learning. It wasn’t until we were mature enough to give learning its due that we could allow school to become virtuous. We had to deal with our vices to find success in school.”
The administrator asked, “Are you suggesting that we bag PIOUS?”
“Not at all. I am suggesting that education, like prison, is not about what we do to them, it’s about what they come to realize while they are going to school. Prisoners who accept the opportunity of reform are able to survive outside of the walls. Students who become virtuous in an educational sense make the most of their school years. PIOUS is one tool that might be appropriate for a student. However, no matter how sincere we are in our belief that this is the best way to teach students, PIOUS is unlikely to fulfill its promise if the students don’t buy into the program.”
The meeting ended at its mutually agreed contractual time. As usual, little attention was given to the greater philosophical implications of why the current initiative was being chosen. There is a blind spot in education that is as vacuous as a cesspool. The assumption is that if a message is delivered with recommendations and data, it must be the best way. In the coming months, the virtues and vices of PIOUS would play out with Jack being the dutiful implementer and open-minded seeker of the capacities and abilities of this new program.
Bittersweet is the end of summer.
Gone are the days of lounging,
Writing when the mood strikes,
Watching HGTV for no good reason
Except that I can,
Working out two times a day,
And taking long walks with the dog.
Oh yeah, with time for a nap left in there too.
Sometimes the boredom sets in
Bringing with it a laziness that longs for routine
The old 7:20-2:50 with all the bells ringing,
Requests to go to the bathroom,
And angry emails about poor marks on essays.
The long summer makes for a yearning
Of curricular goals, objectives, grading scales, and
Thirty minute lunches.
Oh yeah, with the hassle of waking them up from naps.
But the boredom cannot beat the excitement
Of meeting a new class for the first time,
Kind of gunslinger’s moment, good, bad, and ugly
Complete with a stash of gold
Hidden in the lessons and experiences
Of working hard in school,
At least until next summer when the break comes back again.
Photo Credit: gratisography.com via Pexels
Teacher 1: Sit down, my man, what’s going on?
Student: Nothing, how are you guys?
Teacher 1: Never had a bad day in my life.
Teacher 2: Good, just trying to survive here.
Student: I hear you. At least you get weekends off. I have to work.
Teacher 2: You still at the Sunny Half?
Student: Yep. I’m up to thirteen an hour.
Teacher 1: Whoa, sous chef?
Student: No, more like an apprentice. The chef likes me and thinks I’m going to culinary school.
Teacher 2: Why not?
Student: I’m going to college to be a petroleum engineer. I’ve seen too much stuff in the kitchen.
Teacher 1: You’ve been at it a couple of years, right?
Student: Yep. Most people quit after six months. There are too many junkies in the restaurant business. I’ve seen coke heads, heroin addicts, meth, alcoholics. They’re everywhere.
Teacher 1: Stay away from that stuff.
Student: No doubt, there was a guy there who told me who to stay away from. I’ve seen drugs at their worst and I have no interest in going there.
Teacher 2: Last year we had this same conversation. Instead of drugs, the problem was the curfew. Have you got that figured out yet?
Student: Yep. I bought a car, cash. A Honda. It gets me to work and back no problem.
Teacher 1: Don’t waste your money on cars. You’ll need it for college.
Student: I know, but I did buy my mom a car. She needed something. Alright, I’ve gotta go to work.
Teacher 2: We’re still in school. You just leave?
Student: I have two study halls in a row. They never know. Later.
When we try to describe people who have been important to us, why is it that we must use the most dramatic words? Are people really titans or pillars? I guess that’s more a matter of vocabulary than anything else. Today, I was able to thank a couple of titans, pillars. Not really, they were my teachers and they were two of the best.
Many years ago, I entered a program thinking my career path would take me in one direction, but in the truest sense of what education should be, I learned more about me so that I would make decisions about my life that were informed, not blinded by a false sense of ambition. While it is a shame that it took until I got into a doctoral program to understand the bigger potential of education, I owe it to my former professors for presenting learning in a way that was meaningful, personal, and important.
So thank you Dr. Frazer and Dr. Svenning, you both showed me the relevance in gathering all of the information before making a decision, you both taught the importance of understanding a problem before proposing a solution, and you both made me love reading research with a critical eye.
I’ll always appreciate the wisdom that you both shared with me and I hope that I am able to pass it down to the students I’m working with. And just for the record, I don’t think titans are real, both of you most certainly are. Pillars just stand there, that’s not either of you. You are teachers, plain and simple.